The Anglo-American Conservative Tradition and Its Surprising Jewish Roots

In today’s political discourse, argue Ofir Haivry and Yoram Hazony, there is a tendency to conflate two distinct sets of ideas: a conservative tradition embraced perhaps most importantly by Edmund Burke and Alexander Hamilton and a liberal tradition, founded by John Locke and embraced by Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson. These competing traditions share key points in common: respect for individual liberty, belief in republican government, and hostility toward dictatorship. But they differ in their attitudes toward universalism, religion, and progress. Haivry and Hazony trace the conservative tradition from the 15th-century English political philosopher John Fortescue to the 19th century, and note the influence of Judaism on some of its most important exponents:

According to Fortescue, . . . the powers of the English king are limited by the traditional laws of the English nation, in the same way—as Fortescue emphasizes—that the powers of the Jewish king in the Mosaic constitution in Deuteronomy are limited by the traditional laws of the Israelite nation. . . . [But] the decisive chapter in the formation of modern Anglo-American conservatism . . . is dominated by the figure of John Selden (1584–1654), probably the greatest theorist of Anglo-American conservatism. . . .

Selden saw himself as an heir to Fortescue. . . . His own much more extensive theoretical defense of English national traditions appeared in the form of short historical treatises on English law, as well as in a series of massive works examining political theory and law in conversation with classical rabbinic Judaism. In these works, Selden sought to defend conservative traditions, including the English one, not only against [advocates of absolute monarchy], but also against the claims of a universalist rationalism, according to which men could simply consult their own reason, which was the same for everyone, to determine the best constitution for mankind. . . .

Selden recognizes that, in making . . . selections from the traditions of the past, we tacitly rely upon a higher criterion for selection, a natural law established by God, which prescribes “what is truly best” for mankind in the most elementary terms. In his Natural and National Law, Selden explains that this natural law has been discovered over long generations since the biblical times and has come down to us in various versions. Of these, the most reliable is that of the Talmud, which describes the seven laws of the children of Noah prohibiting murder, theft, sexual perversity, cruelty to beasts, idolatry and defaming God, and requiring courts of law to enforce justice. . . .

Nonetheless, Selden emphasizes that no nation can govern itself by directly appealing to such fundamental law. . . It is thus wise to respect the different laws found among nations, both those that appear right to us and those that appear mistaken, for different perspectives may each have something to contribute to our pursuit of the truth.

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More about: Conservatism, History & Ideas, John Locke, John Selden, Judaism, Political philosophy


Understanding the Background of the White House Ruling on Anti-Semitism and the Civil Rights Act

Dec. 13 2019

On Wednesday, the president signed an executive order allowing federal officials to extend the protections of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act to Jews. (The order, promptly condemned for classifying Jews as a separate nationality, did nothing of the sort.) In 2010, Kenneth Marcus called for precisely such a ruling in the pages of Commentary, citing in particular the Department of Education’s lax response to a series of incidents at the University of California at Irvine, where, among much elase, Jewish property was vandalized and Jewish students were pelted with rocks, called “dirty Jew” and other epithets, and were told, “Jewish students are the plague of mankind.”

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More about: Anti-Semitism, Israel on campus, U.S. Politics